Sat, Oct 15, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Drug testing in NFL appears to be working well


Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams returns tomorrow after a four-game suspension for violating the National Football League's substance-abuse policy, the latest of several cases involving the NFL that raise questions for all sports about what drug testing can reasonably be expected to accomplish.

While Congress has heavily criticized Major League Baseball for its drug-testing policy, those same lawmakers have praised the NFL, whose program is regarded by drug experts as the best among professional sports leagues in the US.

Still, about seven players a year fail the NFL steroids test, a number that is comparable to the 10 players who failed baseball's steroids test in the first year of its new drug-testing policy.

This season, the rookie fullback Rick Razzano of Tampa Bay was suspended for four games for failing a steroids test, and Vikings running back Onterrio Smith was suspended for a year after he was caught with a Whizzinator, a mechanism designed to subvert urine tests.

The NFL also investigated three players -- center Jeff Mitchell of Carolina, tackle Todd Steussie of Tampa Bay and punter Todd Sauerbrun of Denver -- after CBS News reported in March that they had filled prescriptions for steroids that were written by a doctor in South Carolina who has been indicted on federal charges. None of the three tested positive under the NFL's program, and the players have not been suspended, but they will be subject to an increased number of random tests in the coming years. All three players were playing for the Panthers when they saw the doctor.

On Thursday, the Web site for "60 Minutes" reported that Bill Romanowski, a former linebacker for the Broncos, admitted in an interview to be broadcast Sunday that he took steroids from spring 2001 until fall 2003, and that he got them from Victor Conte, founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative.

"I think the fact that we still have some positives, in some ways I think that is sort of an inevitable reality," said the NFL's executive vice president, Jeff Pash, in a recent interview. "There will be some people who will try to get an edge. But the fact that we have some positives I think suggests that it is quite difficult to get that edge and that the odds are that those efforts will be detected.

"I'm not so naive as to say that we will get to the point where there is complete absence of any illegal substances."

The NFL has twin programs. One tests for performance-enhancing drugs, like steroids, and one tests for substance-abuse drugs, like marijuana and cocaine.

Since testing began in 1989, 57 players have been suspended for steroids, and there have been 60 more positive tests -- many in training camp -- on players who either retired or were released before their suspensions were announced. That is a total of 117 positive steroid tests in 16 years, or about seven a year. There have been just two repeat positives by an individual player in the steroids program. The policy currently calls for a player to be suspended four games for a first positive test for steroids.

The NFL recently lowered the threshold for the level of steroid necessary to trigger a positive test. Had the threshold been lowered earlier, more players taking small amounts of steroids might have been caught.

"It's clear that the program is adaptable to deal with changing circumstances," said Doug Allen, the assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association. "This is an arms race, and it's never going to be over. Testers are always going to be sprinting to catch up to those that would avoid and evade testing. That's a given."

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